2008-05-15 / On the Town

New rock musical based on Kent State massacre

By Cary Ginell Soundthink@aol.com

I would urge any budding stage directors and composers who yearn to give birth to their own Broadway musical to first attend a workshop production such as "Ohio," which was staged last week by California Lutheran University's Creative Arts Division.

As a constantly evolving work in progress, "Ohio" is an illuminating look at how musicals are made, the layers of complexities needed to mold and shape it into a presentable form and the travails of doing so with limited resources.

"Ohio" is a rock musical directed by Ken Gardner, focusing on events leading up to and including the tragic clashes between students at Kent State University and the National Guard in May 1970. Gardner got the idea for dramatizing the events at Kent State about 20 years ago. Originally a play, the production was transformed into a rock musical three years ago, with a score provided by composer Sandy Shanin and lyricist Sara B. Ware.

The incidents at Kent State were triggered by then-president Richard M. Nixon's expansion of the war in Vietnam into the neighboring country of Cambodia. Student protests against the insurgency grew increasingly violent, and on May 4 a confrontation occurred between students and the National Guard, resulting in the killing of four unarmed students and the wounding of nine others.

An iconic photo of a girl grieving over the body of one of the students won a Pulitzer Prize. The tragedy became a touchstone in the war in Vietnam, sparking major unrest on college campuses across the nation.

The fictional characters featured in "Ohio" are loosely based on actual Kent State students. Gardner's story focuses on Sam, a patriotic war veteran, and his four children, each with different points of view on the conflict. With Frankie, one of Sam's sons, serving in Vietnam, the remaining family members, brothers Bobby and Steven, and sister Ruthie, establish the emotions of their characters in the moving ensemble piece "Hello, Frankie."

Steven is virulently against the war, cynically doubting everything the government says, including the veracity of the recent moonwalk by Apollo 11 astronauts. After Frankie is reported killed in action, Bobby is torn between acting as a peacemaker and joining Steven in his plans to burn down the campus ROTC building.

In addressing the audience before the performance (which coincided with the 38th anniversary of the event), Gardner explained the fluid nature of the show, for which CLU students are being used as actors. In a staged reading, sets and costumes are rudimentary so that the actors can concentrate on the script and the songs. (Some actors even bring scripts on stage.)

The musical accompaniment is equally pared down, with only a guitar and piano accompanying the singers. Even so, in this still skeletal form, one gets a vivid impression of the power and dramatic potential of "Ohio" when all the various elements are eventually fleshed out.

In writing the songs, composer Sandy Shanin has the difficult task of fashioning emotionally effective songs that serve to move the plot forward, a job that is complicated by the necessity of working with a nonprofessional cast and crew. Although she's still working on six to eight additional songs for the second act, Shanin has come up with some gems that were presented to the audience at the reading, including the moving "Requiem," sung by a wordless choir ensemble as Frankie's coffin is carried out on stage.

Despite the fact that many of the performers have no singing background or training, a number of performances in the show as it was presented last week were effective and believable, most notably Noah Skultety as Bobby and Kelly Derouin as his free-spirited girlfriend, Cally.

"You want the singers to love singing the songs so they can make them more meaningful," Shanin said.

"Ohio" is Shanin's fourth musical; her experience enables her to trust her intuition in developing the songs as she constantly rewrites and reworks them.

Watching a show like "Ohio," which admittedly is still a long way from being professionally performed, one gets an idea of how other shows may have looked in their early developmental stages. To bring a Broadway show to fruition, a good idea is not enough. In addition to vision and drive, one needs persistence, versatility and the capacity for critical selfexamination.

If last week's reading was any indication, Gardner and company are well on their way to achieving their goal.

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